Cheryl Abbate is a self-described feminist, philosopher and military officer. She is currently a Philosophy PhD student at Marquette University and obtained her MA in Philosophy with Bernard Rollin at Colorado State University.
She was one of the animal rights activists who asked me questions during the discussion of my talk at UW Madison. Ms. Abbate challenged my views on the topic, and we had a subsequent exchange in the comments here, but she has not been very clear where she stands. So I thought some insight into her philosophy could be gained by looking up her Master’s thesis.
Here is the abstract:
Research on Prisoners: An alternative to animal testing.
Members of the biomedical community justify biomedical research on sentient beings by depicting the benign results which are regarded as necessary for scientific and medical progress, which in turn is absolutely necessary for maintaining human well being. Rather than take for granted that the burden of biomedical research should rest only on nonhuman animals, I will explore whether or not there is a more appropriate class of sentient beings that we should conduct our biomedical research on. I will argue, based on utilitarian principles, that if we can maximize overall happiness by conducting our research on a different group of beings, then we should opt to conduct our biomedical experiments on these beings. My central proposal is that our decision to experiment on nonhuman animals is not the best alternative available; rather, if we were to experiment on violent criminals, we would increase overall happiness. Since conducting biomedical research on this particular group of prisoners would fulfill the aims of retributive punishment, deter violent crime, and procure optimal scientific results, we would produce the maximal amount of benefits by experimenting on these transgressors. Thus when faced with the choice to experiment on either violent criminals or nonhuman animals, the morally commendable decision would be to perform research on violent criminals.
Sometimes animal rights philosophers say the darndest things!
What else does she think it would maximize our happiness? What about killing humans instead of mosquitos to achieve human population control? Would that maximize happiness as well? This does not seem unthinkable, as she holds human beings in very low regard. In fact, she writes:
So, if we really want to make an interesting comparison between the harm of animal death and human death, why don’t we start by asking the question: “is it a greater harm, for the world, if humans or animals die?” In answering this question, we just might find that we should save the dog from the fire over the human being who is bound to live a life of destruction.
It is difficult for me to think of any other social movement that expresses so clearly a self-hatred for human life. Some animal rights extremists are indeed more concerned with hating humans than loving animals. It is not a movement based on compassion. It is one based on hate towards fellow human beings.
This provides some basic background as to Abbate’s philosophical tendencies. If you are interested, and have the stomach for it, you can read the whole dissertation here.
This introduction aside, the most serious charge she brings to my presentation is that I misrepresented the animal rights position. I reject the charges. Instead, it seems to me that she simply has some trouble living with the consequences of the theories.
In my talk briefly described a couple of dominant animal rights theories. One based on a minimum level of sentience and another on the notion of being a subject-of-a-life. I said that such theories are based on the shared postulate that we owe the same level of moral consideration to all living beings that cross a certain threshold. I then applied the theory to different scenarios. I noted some absurd conclusions that they lead to, such as the call to flip a coin between a mouse and a human when deciding who we will save in a burning house.
As a matter of fact, some activists in the audience willfully accepted the conclusion of the theory. I did not force anyone to raise their hand. I also noted that the same animal rights philosophers who proposed the theories are unable to bring themselves to follow this conclusion. Instead of taking the next logical step of rejecting their own theories, these philosophers came up with some vague “extreme circumstances”, or as Abbate calls them “genuine conflicts”, where showing a preference for the human might be justified.
However, the theories do not clearly define what such “extreme circumstances” are. A minimum requirement is to amend the theories to include a specific definition of when our moral consideration for normal humans can be higher than that of other living beings.
That such “extreme circumstances” outside the burning house scenario can be used to justify some types of animal research was already recognized by Peter Singer (1986) who challenged Tom Regan to consider:
[...] that a new and fatal virus affects both dogs and humans. Scientists believe that the only way to save the lives of any of those affected is to carry out experiments on some of them. The subjects of the experiments will die, but the knowledge gained will mean that others afflicted by the disease will live. In this situation the dogs and humans are in equal peril and the peril is not the result of coercion. If Regan thinks a dog should be thrown out of the lifeboat so that the humans in it can be saved, he cannot consistently deny that we should experiment on a diseased dog to save diseased humans. (Singer, 1986).
To be fair, when pressed, Abbate did offer her own definition of what she means by “genuine conflict”:
“A genuine conflict, to me, is one that arises in nature and which we have not generated by using one being as a mere thing in the first place.”
So what about cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, AIDS, depression and the myriad of terrible diseases that affect us all? Are they not natural enough for her? Apparently not. Ms. Abbate believes that many of these diseases are a direct consequence of our personal choices: “People have cancer because they eat meat” — she explained during my talk.
She is anti-vaccination as well: “Since I have become vegan, I do not get vaccinations nor do I take any medication that is not natural (in fact, I haven’t been sick in the 4 years since I’ve been vegan- imagine that!).” She quickly adds “But let’s say I do get into an accident and need some medical procedure that was developed from animal research. Yes, I would go ahead and accept medical treatment [...]”. In other words, she only envisions her health deteriorating in the case of an accident and not due to her choices or any other external factors. (Are genetic risks and the environment a child is raised in accidents too?)
It is not the first time we have seen animal rights activists willing to be saved by animal research. Indeed, there is nothing like being in a life-threatening situation to conveniently dump your moral principles at the curb.
But I digress…
Going back to my talk — I asserted that once we reject the extremes (the Cartesian and animal right positions) that all the remaining moral theories between the extremes are different versions of “animal welfarism.” All of these are based on the notion that animals deserve our moral consideration, but not to the same degree than normal human beings. This wide range of positions allow plenty of room for disagreement. I accepted that these theories are more complex and nuanced, and can sometimes lead to difficult moral dilemmas with no obvious solutions, but I asserted that they all allow for animal experimentation in different degrees.
The problem is that a moral universe that includes legitimate dilemmas is not one animal rights activists could tolerate living in. That’s a proposition that crashes against the certainty of their perceived righteousness. And that is exactly our problem, as pointed out by Bertrand Russell:
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts.”
In this regard, animal right extremists are no different than any other zealot. Uncompromising and rejecting any potential resolution to moral disputes that includes civil debate within society. Instead, they self-apoint as legislators of the moral code for the rest of us. And yet, they represent a minuscule, marginal faction of our society.
I am reasonably certain that I have represented the animal rights position accurately. One reason is that the response of respectable philosophers to my writings has not been “you misrepresent the animal rights view,” but rather that my argument constitutes “the best-argued defense of animal research I’ve yet seen” — as Peter Singer wrote to me in an email. This does not imply the arguments are correct by any means, but at the very least they must be reasonably clear and intellectually honest.